Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Must See TV

If you missed the first installment of the ESPN Films documentary OJ: Made in America on Saturday night, you are in luck--the network is replaying it at 6:00 tonight.  That will be followed by the second installment of the five-part series at 8:00.  I would consider both of those shows to be must-watch television.

The first episode was riveting.  We learned the backstory of OJ Simpson's childhood in San Francisco, his rise to stardom at the University of Southern California, his early struggles in the NFL and then the incredible 2000 yard season in 1973.  We also found out that OJ's father was a closeted gay man and that OJ started dating an 18-year old Nicole Brown just days after she graduated from high school and he was married with two young children.

One of the things that has been all but forgotten about OJ is that he was one of the greatest running backs in the history of football.  The old college and NFL footage showed him faking out defenders, breaking tackles and outrunning secondaries for huge gains.  You also forget that during the 70's OJ was everywhere.  He was running through the airport to the Hertz rental counter.  He was drinking RC cola.  He was starring in movies and doing sports broadcasting for ABC.  America loved the Juice--and the Juice loved the attention of America.

The overarching theme of OJ: Made in America is that we also need to see his life through the prism of race in America.  We were reminded time and time again that OJ didn't "see himself as black".  And many Americans didn't see him that way either.  There is one incredibly uncomfortable scene where one of the ad executives talks about how OJ "didn't even have black features"--and that is why they were comfortable hiring him as their spokesman.

But what I found most interesting is that the OJ story also shows what it was (and still is) like to be Black in America.  The filmmakers place side-by-side interviews with African-American fans who recall how inspiring it was to see OJ--a black man--in TV commercials for products that most people would consider to be "white".  And then right after that, we hear from 60's and 70's activists like Harry Edwards ripping OJ for not using the platform his fame gave him to demand "social justice" and accusing him of "selling out his people" for cozying up to whites for his own personal gain.  The contrasts the film draws between OJ and Muhammad Ali during that period were particularly poignant given the Champ's recent death.

 So clear three hours of your time tonight to catch the first installment of OJ: Made in America and then episode 2 as well.  You won't regret it.

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